Review | The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See

25150798The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is such a beautifully evocative novel that will make you long to savour pu-erh tea. I’ve never tasted pu-erh myself, but the way See describes it makes it sound like such a precious, earthy and rich beverage, and I love the image of the leaves aging naturally in the sun then being packed into cakes for transport. I also love the way See describes the tea cakes being so precious that Chinese women in ancient times would take them along on long journeys to hand down to their children.

The story revolves around Li-yan and her family, Akha people in a remote Yunnan mountain village, who produce tea. Their world changes when a man in an automobile arrives in their village and offers them riches in return for their tea leaves and labour in producing high quality pu-erh tea. As one of the few educated women in her village, Li-yan is tasked with translating for the stranger, and is dazzled by the potential of the life he offers. When Li-yan gives birth out of wedlock, she wraps her daughter in a blanket with a tea cake and leaves her at a nearby orphanage.

Fast forward several years into the future, where Li-yan moves out of her village and pursues a career in tea connoisseurship, and her daughter Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl who is nonetheless curious about where she came from and what the tea cake means.

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Pu-erh tea cake. Source: http://www.esgreen.com.

Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is such a beautiful story about family and tradition, and about uncovering one’s roots and finding one’s home. But what I love most about it is the glimpse See gives into Akha culture and the history of pu-erh tea. I love the depiction of the traditions around tea making and tea drinking, and the history of how appreciation for this tradition has diluted over time. I highly recommend reading this book, preferably with a cup of tea in hand.

And if you’re curious, here’s a video on how to brew pu-erh tea.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Gauntlet, Karuna Riazi

29346880Described as “steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair,” The Gauntlet is a fun, fantasy middle grade/young adult fiction within Simon and Schuster’s new Salaam Reads imprint. I was looking forward to it since I first heard about Salaam Reads books for Muslim children by Muslim authors, and I’m happy to report that the final book did not disappoint.

During Farah’s twelfth birthday party, she and her friends Alex and Essie discover a mysterious board game in Farah’s bedroom. Due in part to the mischief of Farah’s younger brother Ahmed, Farah and her friends find themselves diving deep into the world of the game, on a mission to find Ahmed and take him home.

I love the world-building in The Gauntlet, and how the world of the boardgame, unlike the chaotic jungle of Jumanji, feels almost clock-like in its mechanical precision. There’s a logic to the challenges being offered, and to the way the players must navigate the world, but there’s also an urgent race against time, as each puzzle comes with a finite amount of sand in an hourglass within which the puzzle must be completed. The story felt very much like a video game — one challenge involving characters having to throw items from platforms before the platforms disappear, and as a reader, it’s almost a breathless experience just to get through that chapter.

I also love the Middle Eastern and South Asian elements in the story. For example, Farah and her family are Bangladeshi, and there’s a lot of descriptions of South Asian desserts that her mother makes for the party. Within the game itself, one of the challenges even involves South Asian delicacies, none of which I think I’ve ever tried, but am now very eager to taste. Farah and her friends also talk a lot about evil mischief being caused by djinn, and this has a heavy influence on the game.

Within all the action and excitement, there’s a lot of heart in this story. Farah’s love for her brother clearly drives her throughout her adventures, and Alex and Essie’s love for Farah keeps them fiercely loyal throughout the game. Even the origins of the game itself is rooted in love, and we see the tragedy in how the best intentions can be twisted into something dangerous.

The Gauntlet is such a fantastic book. It’s written for younger readers but will appeal to older readers as well. Also, how awesome is it that the main character wears a hijab, and that this is not just displayed on the cover, it is also brought up in the story itself?

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Three Must-See Plays in Toronto This Week

Prince Hamlet

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On stage till April 29 at the Theatre Centre. General admission seating, pay what you can afford ($5, $25, $50, $75). Buy tickets online.

The most visceral, emotionally powerful take on Shakespeare I’ve ever experienced, Ravi Jain’s ASL/English production Prince Hamlet is a must see. The stark set design compels us to keep our gaze fixed on the actors, and the dynamism of their movement through the space. The piles of dirt around the stage provide opportunities for fraught, highly symbolic engagement by the actors, and the mirrors on the far wall create moments of self-reflection done very well, as characters like Claudius and Hamlet deliver monologues not to the audience but to themselves.

The key to this play’s success in my view lies in the masterful performance by Dawn Jani Birley who plays Horatio. Tasked with telling Hamlet’s story after his death, Horatio narrates the events of the play in ASL. Birley also interprets much of the spoken dialogue into ASL, yet remains present in the scene, her gestures conveying emotions writ large. Birley’s performance is most powerful when she’s alone on stage, either signing a speech before another character delivers a monologue, or delivering her own monologue as Horatio. The scene where she narrates Ophelia’s death is heartbreaking, and the final scene of the play, where Horatio dissembles with grief at Hamlet’s death is beyond words. I try to write in more detail about the experience on this blog, but really, that final scene just about broke me. I’m usually too self-conscious to give a standing ovation when I’m as close to the stage as I was at Prince Hamlet (second row), but this performance brought me to my feet. It was incredible.

Banana Boys

Banana Boys

On stage till May 14 at Factory Theatre. General admission seating, Tickets $25, $20 for seniors, students and arts workers. Buy tickets online.

Raw, irreverent and surprisingly poignant at times, Banana Boys is a brash take on Asian-Canadian masculinity. The title is from a derogatory term to describe someone “yellow on the outside and white on the inside,” and the play tells the story of five Asian-Canadian men who are exploring their identities and navigating adulthood.

The story begins at the funeral of one of the men, Rick (Jeff Yung), a wealthy consultant who lived with drug addiction and the ability to time travel, and who was found with a mirror in his chest. The time traveling conceit sets the stage for a frenzied series of vignettes from the characters’ lives, as Rick pops in and out of various time periods in an attempt to find some potential for posterity.

For a show about death and drugs, it’s remarkably hilarious. I particularly loved a game show scene that mimicked the cheesy variety show formats on Asian TV, and Matthew Gin as Mike had to choose from four “acceptable” career options as his mother cheered in the background. Another favourite scene was a guerrilla warfare sequence where the characters were confronted with the landscape of being a “banana boy”, such as that white guys get girls from various backgrounds and banana boys are left with video games and bubble tea.

At other times, the play is in-your-face about its darker themes. For example, Oliver Koomsatira as Dave narrates an incident of racial violence from the stage, and his cast mates walk into the audience, look audience members in the eye and show images from the story on their phone screens. It was uncomfortable, and consciously so; we as audience members are forced to confront the reality that Dave had lived through. Dave struggled with anger management issues throughout the play, beating up white characters for real and perceived racial slights, and his anger becomes a constant reminder of the microaggressions Asian-Canadians face daily, and how all of that adds up inside you.

Banana Boys is raw and powerful and the staging is absolutely masterful. See it.

Little Pretty and the Exceptional

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On stage till April 30 at Factory Theatre. General admission seating, Tickets $45, $30 for seniors, students and arts workers. Buy tickets online.

A Punjabi-Canadian man and his two daughters prepare to open up a sari shop in Toronto as the elder daughter Simran (Farah Merani) deals with mental health issues. I came into this play expecting a family comedy along the lines of Kim’s Convenience, and wasn’t prepared for how harrowing an experience this play would become. The play plunges us directly into Simran’s psyche, beginning with her stressing out over LSATs, and Merani is a tightly coiled spring, jittery and awaiting the slightest touch to explode. Later, she channels her long-deceased mother and walks around the store as lights flicker and sounds come from speakers and it’s just an overwhelming, utterly terrifying scene. I almost clutched the arm of the friend who watched the play with me, and had to remind myself this was fiction, so real did this scene feel. All kudos to Merani for her performance, as I can only imagine how tiring, how emotionally draining it must be to play this part day in and day out; I was exhausted just watching what she went through.

The performance standout for me however was Shruti Kothari as younger sister Jasmeet. Some online reviews have called her “effervescent”, and it’s true — she lights up the stage with her quest to become prom queen and her rom com scenes with new boyfriend Iyar (Shelly Antony). But as the story goes on, we realize there’s a strained cheerfulness to Jasmeet’s demeanour, a determination to remain positive and keep her family living as normal a life as possible. For all her love for her sister, she is the last to allow herself to admit that Simran needs help, and for all her desire to keep her family happy, she also harbours major unresolved issues about her mother. The play’s program calls her “the typical hip Toronto teenager”, which I think is a disservice, as to my mind, she gave the most nuanced performance and her character showed the most growth within the story.

Shelly Antony as Iyar is hilarious and charming, but more importantly, as the only character outside the family, he provides perspective and sees things before the family members allow themselves to acknowledge. He’s most fun as comic relief, but when he gets serious, you realize how wonderful he is as a boyfriend, and how much more he is than just the perfect prom king beside Jasmeet’s queen.

Sugith Varughese is fantastic as Dilpreet, the father whose dreams of a new life in Canada are inextricably intertwined with his dreams of creating a family legacy for his children. Dilpreet provides a much needed reality check; while Simran struggles with stress and Jasmeet turns a blind eye to the possibility that things are less than perfect, Dilpreet must keep the family going. He continues with the sari store because he needs to pay the bills. He has to confront his guilt over his wife’s death because he needs to help his daughters. Varughese imbues the character with humour and charisma, and serves as a wonderful foil for both daughters.

This isn’t an easy play to watch, but if you do, prepare to be moved.

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Fun fact: I actually learned of these plays from each other. A friend invited me to see Little Prettyand in the programme I saw a promo for Banana Boys, and when I watched Banana Boys, there was a flyer in the lobby for Prince Hamlet. So many thanks to my friend Tina who started me on this whole series in the first place!